This is a word-laden post, as opposed to the photo-heavy ones of late. Be that the good news or the bad for you, as I say in About, I write, or try to, for people who love to read as much as they love to eat. And I’m as hysterically happy to have time to actually write something as I am to be in my own kitchen for longer that it takes to make a cup of coffee.
The stew is one of those make-it-up-as-you-go-along things. I hope that’s among the good news. I have faith that you can visualize the process. And it’s wonderful for the day before the night before anything.
A few days ago, one of our housekeepers, a brilliant, petite ball of fire, asked me, with an evil grin, if I had all my Christmas baking done, knowing that the answer would be a dead faint in the back hallway. But today I finally had a chance to begin to catch up with myself. Four batches of Salted Lavender-Rosemary Shortbread passed through the oven on their way to the front porch to cool. The thermometer said 32, but the wind chill dropped it to 13º. Seriously crappy for the last errands I had to run, but perfect for cooling hot stuff.
While the front porch was doing its job, I was so deliriously happy to be in my own kitchen making real food that I decided to throw together a pot of stew. Yesterday I woke up to eight inches of snow with more falling as I stood at the window thinking that clearly this was a conspiracy and about the last thing I needed. I’d gone to bed late Saturday night dimly aware that there was a chance of snow overnight. Not to pick nits, but eight inches of anything related to weather is statistically more significant than a “chance”. Just saying. I shook my head, snorted dragon-like, and turned away to make coffee.
After about an hour’s worth of it, I took a deep breath and decided I needed to get into a shower and out the door. My strategy was to shovel juuuuuust enough of the driveway to be able to get out of it, and deal with the rest of it and the sidewalk (I have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, and our city mercifully allows 24 hours after a snowfall for sidewalks to be cleared) later. As I passed by the front window, a motion outside caught the corner of my eye. Someone was shoveling my driveway. And had already shoveled the sidewalk. By hand. No blower involved.
I squinted. I did not recognize him. I ran fingers through my hair, cinched my robe a little tighter, wishing I’d opted for a full set of pajamas the night before. I was so very tired that all I could manage was the bottoms, while I worked my bra out from under the shirt I’d worn all day and fell into bed. Half-pajamaed is poor protocol for needing to address a stranger shoveling one’s driveway. Still, I took another deep breath and stepped outside.
“Do I know you?” was the politest thing I could think of to say. He took off his sunglasses (?!?) and lifted his hat. He was a friend I hadn’t seen in about two years. My neighbors (through whom I’d met him) are gone for a couple of weeks, and he is house-sitting for them. He found himself with nothing to do for the morning and thought he’d shovel some snow. If I could have gathered the energy to weep, I would have. Instead, I simply gaped open-mouthed and held my chin in my hands, grateful beyond words. I went back inside, took a shower, and headed to work. And gave him a hearty hug on the way out.
So today, what luck that I needed to return a favor and actually had the time to do it, a rare coincidence in my life.
There really isn’t a recipe for this stew, so to those who are religiously recipe-driven, I apologize. But be strong and read on. There can be great comfort in making something from what you have on hand.
I diced an onion, 4 stalks of celery, 4 peeled carrots, and sweated them all in a couple of tablespoons of melted butter in a large soup pot. When they’d softened, I added 4 cloves (are you perceiving a pattern?) of minced garlic. While the vegetables were making the house as fragrant as one where someone actually lives, I opened, drained through a colander, and rinsed two 15-ounce cans of black beans. I also opened a 28-ounce can of whole San Marzano tomatoes ($2.99 at World Market here), using scissors to snip them into pieces right in the can. Last week I had roasted a couple of chickens, pulled off the meat and bagged it in ziplocks (what did we do before ziplock bags and Costco?), then made stock from the carcasses. Optimist that I can be at times, I kept a half-gallon of it in the refrigerator along with a bag of chicken meat, and froze the rest of both.
Into the pot went the tomatoes, the black beans, and the stock. I pulled a 1-pound bag of corn kernels out of the freezer (always keep a rabbit in your hat) and tossed that in. Minus the bag. I brought everything up to a simmer with the lid on the pot, then set it ajar so the flavors could concentrate over about an hour.
Maybe two. The chief difference between a soup and a stew is its consistency. Simply stated, a stew is thicker than a soup. If you simmer a soup long enough that much of its water cooks away, voilà! You have created a stew.
At the end, I added the chicken meat along with about a cup of leftover rice from something I can’t recall, and seasoned the stew with salt and pepper. Always season at the end after liquids have reduced. Had I been operating with full faculties, I’d have added some cumin and coriander to the sweating vegetables, but I’m a simple one-celled organism these days, my imagination having been consumed by three weeks of Christmas parties.
- Sweat the vegetable in olive oil rather than butter, replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, omit the chicken meat, and call it all vegan as well as vegetarian.
- Go ahead and gild the lily: top it with shreds of sharp cheddar and tuck tortillas in around the edge.
- Sub leftover turkey (we’re not too far removed from Thanksgiving) for the chicken, or even leftover prime rib from Christmas dinner.
- If you have some leftover roasted potatoes, toss them in.
After I’d dished up a hearty bowl of something I’d actually made for myself in my very own kitchen, I set the pot . . . . . . are you ready? . . . . on the front porch to chill down. As long as the temp is below 40 degrees, it can safely sit there all night. Tomorrow, which as Scarlett O’Hara reminded us, is another day, I’ll pack up some for my kind neighbor’s house-sitter and the rest into some ziplock bags to go into the freezer for more late work nights to come. Friday brings another Christmas party. And Saturday. And next Saturday. But for the moment, the shortest day of the year is already behind us, and Christmas is waiting for us.
While world peace may be a gleam in a distant eye, there is at least harmony in our house. Be warm. As always, I cherish your comments. Love to you all, and the merriest of everything!